Star Anise from A to Z: 26 Things to Know

star anise with Dried Beef

What is star anise? 26 interesting facts and figures about this spice having a huge variety of uses and purposes, from culinary to digestive.

Anise. Sweet, warm and aromatic, the flavour of star anise is similar – but not identical – to that of aniseed, Anisum vulgare, to which it is not even related. The bouquet of star anise tends to be more pungent and stronger than aniseed.

Bigoli. Star anise is a spice many top chefs love. A prime example is: Massimiliano Alajmowhere it is used in a sauce together with capers and creamed onions for dressing bigoli, a type of pasta widely used in the north Italian region of Veneto. Or in a steam distilled essence for aromatizing cream of chickpeas with red prawns…

Comfit. Star anise is used in China also as an after-dinner digestive.

star anise dried beef

Duck. As well as finding its way into confectionery, star anise also enhances dishes of meat and poultry, and teams up particularly well with pork and duck.

Eight. How many points has the star? Eight, on average, as indicated by its names in Cantonese “batgok” and Mandarin “bajiao” – meaning “eight angled octagon”. Star anise can actually have from 5 to 10 points.

Five spice powder. Five spice powder, which has spread all over the world from China (and is also used to flavour Chinese marbled eggs) owes most of its taste to star anise, followed by Sichuan pepper, cloves, cassia and fennel seeds.

Gourmet coffee. How about a gourmet coffee that is simple to prepare? Just leave some star anise to infuse in it, and the resulting flavour will be richer and more intense.

Health. This is a spice with many proven health-giving properties: it is digestive, good for the stomach, stimulating, diuretic, anti-rheumatic etc, etc.

Illicium verum. This is the scientific name of the plant on which star anise grows. It is a tropical evergreen, which grows to a height ranging from 5 to 10 metres and comes from East Asia, China and Vietnam in particular.

Japanese star anise. Illicium verum, commonly known as Chinese star anise, must not be confused with Illicium anisatum, or Japanese star anise, which is a highly toxic plant.

Keeping. Star anise keeps well for over one year, preferably in hermetically sealed jars.

Liquorice. Star anise is often used in recipes to add a hint of liquorice – with traces of fennel and basil.

star anise dried beef

Mother. In traditional Chinese medicine, star anise is used as a health aid for the female reproductive system and for boosting the milk supply in women who have just given birth. Will it really work?

Noodle soup. Star anise is the key ingredient in Pho broth, the Vietnamese rice noodle soup prepared from beef bones, oxtail, flank steak, charred onions and spices.

Oil. The dried fruits contain from 5 to 8% of essential oil, whose prevalent aromatic composition (80,90%) is anethole, as in the case of aniseed. What differentiates it from the latter, however, is the presence of eucalyptol.

Pericarp. This spice is actually the pericarp or fruit of the plant, which is shaped like a star.

Quasi-boiling. Leaving it to soak in hot water helps extract the aromatic components of star anise, which therefore lends itself to being reutilized for flavouring hot beverages such as Kombucha tea or for making a delicious digestive herbal brew: two stars for each cup.

Red cooking. Also called “Chinese red cooking”, “Chinese stewing” or “Red stewing” this is a very popular cooking technique that confers a red colour to any food prepared in this way. The soy- based sauce of this slowly braised meat, usually beef or chicken, always contains star anise.

Substitute. In the beverage industry, star anise is frequently used in beverages and liqueurs instead of the more costly aniseed.

Tomato. Strange to say, but a tiny amount of star anise (one point of the star is sufficient!) gives a warm spicy nuance to tomato sauce, making it perfect for adding to braised meat dishes. Or a Bolognese meat sauce!

Unripe. The fruit is harvested just before reaching full ripeness and is then dried.

Vin chaud. In vin chaud, a spicy wine drink that is very popular in France, star anise is an essential ingredient.

star anise with Dried Beef
star anise with Dried Beef (bò khô một nắng Krông Pa)

Wrinkles. Is star anise going to be the new natural botox? Some believe this is the case and that it is sufficient to rub the oil extracted from this spice onto the skin – and let powdered star anise masks do the trick – to combat signs of ageing.

XIII/XIV Centuries. Star anise was first brought to Europe by the merchant, explorer and writer, Marco Polo.

Yangtze. This is the “blue river” whose banks skirt the border of the South China province where 90% of the world’s total production of star anise comes from, an industry employing 10 million people.

Zanthoxylum. The genus of the plants producing Sichuan pepper, also called “Chinese coriander”, which is neither related to pepper nor chili pepper, but to citrus plants. It teams up perfectly with star anise, a fact that is well known to those familiar with “E cuisine”, the local culinary style of the Hubei province in China.